Actually chronologically! (And costuming in general.)
10. Decide what you’re going to be. Find a crap ton of pictures and narrow it down to which outfit(s) you’re doing.
This one is pretty self explanatory. But really, search engines are your best friend. If you’re going as something from a comic book, find the stills you need. If you’re going as something from movies or TV, screencaps. Screencaps will be your best friend. They’re better than working off just singular promotional stills, because they have whoever you’re being in action, at many different angles, in different poses and situations. If you’re lucky, you can get close-ups, distance shots, right, left, back, front, you name it.
9. Decide how much money you feel like spending.
If you’re gutsy and hardcore and have no budget, well, that will definitely help. Especially if you’re putting together something that requires a lot of custom or rare pieces. But if you’re like me and would like most of the pieces involved to be as cheap as humanly possible, well, get cozy with your local Target and Goodwill and fabric stores.
8. Figure out what you already have.
Straightforward. When I did Drusilla from Buffy for Halloween, we had decided arbitrarily on the red outfit she wears through a lot of the end of the season (based solely on the fact that, given my body type, the white empire-waist number would fail dramatically on me). Then, looking through my closet, we suddenly discovered that I had a red and black corset top already. It wasn’t a perfect replica, but it was pretty damn close, and I already had it, so, ta-da. My friend’s Inara costume was based on the fact that, oh hey, of course she had black dress pants, it would be easy to make or find the rest of the yellow and black Serenity number. I was only going to have Ilse’s green dress when we did Spring Awakening, but then my dad, of course, had a large white shirt, so I wound up with both outfits. My friend’s Shilo costume was pulled almost entirely out of our closets: white ruffly button-up? Check. Black skirt? Check. Boots? Check. Black short-sleeved jacket thing with a little belt? Actually, check. Surprisingly.
7. Acquire base pieces.
The barest minimums, tops and bottoms. For a lot of comic book or cartoon stuff, this is probably a more intricate process, but I’ve never cosplayed out of such things. I know that in my experience, this usually means pants or skirts, tops. The things you can’t live without. Goodwill will be your best friend. Sometimes modding them will be required, of course; I needed to acquire the corset for Blind Mag, but we could sew the feathers on later. My Dakota costume actually started because I found an appropriate satiny turquoise tank top for like $6. After I had it, I thought, why the hell not?
6. Decide how willing you are to make or modify clothes.
In my case, I can… embroider a tiny bit, and sew patches onto things damn well. I can’t actually sew, but I have a mother who is willing to help my geeky habits, so that’s lucky. If you’re willing to make your own stuff, though, you’ll have an easier time of it. My friend’s Inara costume, we had to make the yellow piece ourselves; as for my Kaylee costume, I sewed the heart and teddy bear patches onto my pants by hand, we actually dyed the lace orange (unsurprisingly, lace is impossible to find) and sewed it and more white lace with red ribbon hand-threaded through onto just a plain old pink t-shirt, time-consuming but less than searching for an appropriate patterny shirt like she often wears. My friend’s Wendla costume was actually a maternity swimsuit cover-up, but with some clever alterations, it became a kindergarten dress like a metaphorical snap of the fingers.
5. Look for the big things that you could live without, but would still want.
Dru doesn’t always wear the burgundy coat with that corset and skirt, and I wasn’t expecting to find one. I managed to have incredible vintaging luck ($20 for a velvet coat? Priceless reactions) but I could have managed without, theoretically. I’d have been sad, but I could have been okay. And I could have done it without a Miss Edith, but that’s no fun! Thankfully Goodwill often has inexpensive blonde porcelain dolls in bulk around Halloween. Also, ribbon is cheap and I have plenty of it anyhow.
4. Decide what you can and cannot do without and what substitutions you’ll be willing to make.
When I did Mag, I knew that the odds of finding awkward finger claw eye-stabby-outty things was slim to none. So I said, I’ll be able to manage. From that same costume, I already had epic boots (also substitutions, as over-the-knee leather boots are impossible to find), so when I was doing Drusilla, I just said, screw it, they’ll be fine. Sure, Dru’s shoes with that outfit are red. But they’re under a skirt. Which is also burgundy, and mine was black, but it was $6 and perfect otherwise and it’s a really dark burgundy anyway.
I think my favorite story about details would be when I did Dakota of Grindhouse. I found the lab coat for cheap, but it was just a lab coat, bo-ring. So I got out my embroidery thread and tried doing letters for the first time in my life. In absolutely perfect cursive, I then embroidered Dr. Dakota Block above the breast pocket like all good lab coats have. I didn’t have real syringes, just the plastic ones you buy at the drug store, but I hand-painted them to be blue and red and yellow and gold. I hand-colored and stitched a syringe holster for my thigh. Details is finding and doing both. The jewelry for my friend’s Inara costume was both. The bracelet and earrings I had. The necklace I found the beads for at the craft store and strung myself. The collection of weaponry we’ve acquired for our Firefly endeavors we found (cheap at no less than four thrift stores, a Wal-Mart, and a Target) and then modded (spray paint and Sharpie and duct tape and more spray paint). I’ve already got a paper umbrella and wrenches and things. My friend who was Simon, we DIY’d a med kit for him out of a toiletry bag and a cross made of white paper and that and the round red glasses we got off the internet made the costume.
2. Hair and makeup next! This includes wigs.
Sometimes you don’t need much makeup. Kaylee required none except a smear of powder eyeliner on my cheek to simulate engine grease. Sometimes you have to go all out. Dakota required makeup artistry, man. First I had to buy waterproof eyeliner and mascara. Then I had to buy a tiny squirt bottle. Then I had to apply it just so and spray it just so. Mag required slightly spendy but perfect feather eyelashes glued on (an experience I am not fond of, but it was worth it). Dru didn’t take a lot of face work, but the nails… well. A sidenote: I am obsessed with getting nail color correct. I literally bought a special nail polish just for doing Dakota; luckily, I had the glittery black for Mag, and the red and white for Dru, and god knows how many other colors I’ve needed over time. (Actually, usually red.)
Hair is another story. If you’re just screwing around on Halloween or something, like when I did Dakota, you don’t need to worry if you’re not perfect. Granted, I’d just given myself bangs that week, but a blonde I’m not. Drusilla and Mag both required hours in curlers. Kaylee doesn’t require anything, really, but I… may or may not have taken a picture of Jewel Staite (I believe the cap I used was from “The Message”) to my hairdresser the week before Comic-Con and said okay, cut it like this. But my friend, we’ve just borrowed a wig for her Inara-being, as she is in real life a ginger. My friend had a wig for Shilo that was cheap and ridiculous, but it worked. To be Sophie-Anne from True Blood, my mom invested (well, it was also pretty cheap, but) in a red wig. I am going to need to get one of my own, or just suck it up and go ginger for a weekend, for next year’s Comic-Con.
1. Take a million pictures (and either Photoshop them all to hell or have someone else do it for you).
Pshh, the best part. As evidenced by the veritable scrapbook my friends and I made that time we did Spring Awakening. As evidenced by my proclivity towards only posting Facebook profile pictures of myself that are of me in costume. You get to act your costumes out. You get to play pretend while playing dress-up. And Photoshopping the pictures just makes them that much more awesome. Then all your friends who aren’t cosplaying with you get to see just how epic you are.
–your fangirl heroine.